ARLINGTON, TX. The Dallas Cowboys earned their first win of the season Sunday night when they defeated their visiting division rivals, the New York Giants, 20-13. While the score may suggest this was a tight contest, the Dallas defense dominated much of the game while holding Giants rookie sensation, Saquon Barkley, largely in check. While it wasn’t quite a “complete” performance for the home team, the victory did illustrate just how far the Cowboy defense has come, as well as the likely identity of the team moving forward.
The game opened with a bang as Dak Prescott seemed to answer his critics on the third snap with a 64-yard bomb to Tavon Austin for the game’s first score.
The @dallascowboys strike first in style with a deep strike from @dak to @Tayaustin01! #NYGvsDAL pic.twitter.com/7QAW1x68iF
— SNF on NBC (@SNFonNBC) September 17, 2018
On Dallas’ next drive, they would continue to move the ball but ultimately be forced to settle for a 37-yard Brett Maher field goal to push their lead to 10. There, the score would stay for some time, putting pressure on the Cowboys defense to stifle Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr., and Saquon Barkley among others. Challenge accepted.
There’s no doubt the New York Giants have some seriously talented players at their skill positions, but their offensive line remains a glaring weakness -one that proved to be Dallas’ greatest advantage on the night. The Cowboys sacked Eli Manning 6 times using 6 different players. It was the most sacks of Eli Manning for Cowboys since week 15 of the 2008 season. The result was a visibly shaken Manning on Sunday night.
While New York tried to counter Dallas’ pressure with quick check-downs and screens to Barkley, tallying 14 receptions worth 80 yards for the back, they ultimately failed to sustain drives for most of the night. This was made even more apparent when New York tried to run Barkley between the tackles. Despite Barkley’s immense physical talents and uncanny ability to shed would-be tacklers, the Penn State product was held to just 28 yards on 11 carries. The Giants collectively managed a pitiful 35 yards on the ground.
Even with more missed tackles for the Dallas defense -a trend they need to overcome moving forward- they continued to swarm to the ball and lay the wood whenever possible.
📺: @snfonnbc #NYGvsDAL pic.twitter.com/ufHEIDXXAN
— NFL (@NFL) September 17, 2018
Whether it was Jaylon Smith smashing Eli on a quarterback scramble inside the Dallas 10, or a Taco Charlton fumble recovery after the Damien Wilson sack deep in Giants territory, Rod Marinelli‘s squad got after New York and made their presence felt.
📺: @snfonnbc #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/sjoV9FEerI
— NFL (@NFL) September 17, 2018
As impressive as the run defense was, however, what’s being somewhat overlooked is the job that Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie did against Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard. On the day, Beckham, the league’s highest paid receiver and historically a Cowboy-killer, was held to just 4 receptions on 9 targets for a grand total of 51 yards. His longest reception, 17 yards, came in what was, at least at the time, believed to be garbage time. Shepard, meanwhile, was held to 3 catches and 24 yards.
Considering the prime-time spotlight that was on the game, holding Beckham to barely 50 yards is quite the achievement and a clear indicator of Kris Richards‘ influence on this secondary. According to Next Gen Stats, Beckham averaged a meager 1.6 yards of separation per target. The league average, in case you were wondering, is just south of 2.8 yards. That’s called staying in a dude’s hip pocket and making his life very difficult. Jones and Awuzie would combine for 14 solo tackles in the game.
In total, the Giants were held to 255 yards of total offense. If that’s not abysmal enough, consider the fact that 108 of those yards came on New York’s final two drives.
Aside from a broken coverage at the end of the game by Jaylon Smith and Jeff Heath, the result of which was an uncontested touchdown for Evan Engram, the Dallas defense was smothering. Currently allowing just 14.5 points per game through two weeks, they’ve established themselves as the most consistent Cowboys unit.
The early indication is that the identity of the 2018 Dallas Cowboys will be to lean on their thus far impressive defense, run the ball behind Ezekiel Elliott, and then hope that Dak Prescott can create just enough offense with his legs and his arm to get you 20+ points a game. What’s more for this defense, it’s not even at full strength yet.
Randy Gregory will hopefully be cleared of concussion protocol by next Sunday’s game at Seattle. Given no additional information about his reported relapse has surfaced, we can only assume he will be available for that game. David Irving, meanwhile, has two remaining games of his 4 game suspension for substance abuse. On the back end of the defense, meanwhile, starting safety, Xavier Woods should return next week from a hamstring injury suffered in week 2 of the preseason. There’s also Datone Jones, who is recovering from a knee injury suffered in training camp.
In short, as good as this defense has looked through two weeks, it has some serious reinforcements still on the way, and with an inconsistent as the offense has looked through two weeks, that’s going to be critical. If this Dallas team has any hope of returning to the playoffs, they’ll need everything Marinelli and Richard’s defense can offer. Thus far, they look to be up to the challenge.